By Kathy Megan
Legislators say that improving the oversight of charter schools and maintaining the momentum of education reform during a tight budget year are among the key education concerns likely to be addressed this session.
Other topics that have been raised by legislators and by advocates for education include the financial sustainability of magnet schools; the development of incentives to attract teachers to struggling districts; and the need to improve bilingual education.
Among bills already filed, one would require more transparency for the UConn Foundation, and another reflects the frustration of at least one legislator — calling for the elimination of the state Board of Regents for Higher Education.
Here is a look at what various legislators educators and advocates have to say on these issues.
With the recent release of a scathing state report on the Hartford-based Jumoke Academy charter school operation, Education Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said this week: “Any responsible public official has to be thinking about shoring up the oversight of charter management organizations right now.’
“The report that recently came out from the state Department of Education didn’t just show that there were problems at F– USE and Jumoke, though there obviously were, but also demonstrated that our state Department of Education did not have in place policies to ensure that guidelines were being properly followed,” Fleischmann said.
The investigation of Jumoke and the closely-related Family Urban Schools of Excellence, or F– USE, charter management organization found that the operation was saddled with “rampant nepotism,” hired felons for school jobs in some cases, imposed little or no oversight on former CEO Michael Sharpe and made repeated financial missteps.
Fleischmann said it’s the role of the Department of Education to oversee charter organizations. “The state Department of Education clearly fell down on that job, we have to figure out what steps are needed to ensure that no other charter organization can make such serious mistakes over so many years without accountability,” he said.
Fleischmann said he expects a “central challenge” of this year’s session will be determining how to provide the “proper support and capacity for educators and for districts” in the face of the state’s budget crunch.
“Making sure that we maintain progress in education, despite the budgetary challenges, is going to be hard work,” he said, but it will be “doable.”
Fleischmann said the state has made “some major progress in addressing the achievement gap” that runs along socio-economic lines in the state.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who is a co-chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as a member of the education committee, said she is concerned about imbalances and inequities in the state that are related to differences in state funding.
For instance, she said that 15 districts, including her home district of West Hartford, get less than half of the state funding they should receive according to the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula.
In addition, she said, some magnet schools run by the Capitol Region Education Council get far more per pupil funding than magnets run by other Regional Education Service Centers in other parts of the state.
She said that while students’ performance has improved in some districts, she is not certain whether this has occurred everywhere. She has asked the state Department of Education to provide her with a report on statewide progress.
“There are winners and losers right now” when it comes to progress in education, Bye said. She said she wants to “move the whole state forward.”
She said she would like to see all of the variables considered to determine where the state can most effectively invest its money. “Given all these investments: commissioner’s network, magnets, increased dollars to urban districts .. How are we doing?,” Bye asked. “I think we need to be asking what works?”
With the state’s significant investment in magnet and charter schools, Bye asked the question: “Are we building a separate system instead of trying to invest in the public system?”
Fleischmann said he supports “Open Choice” programs that allow students in low-performing city districts to enroll in high-performing suburban districts, more than building new magnet schools. He said there is evidence that “Open Choice” programs provide “diverse educational settings and great educational outcomes at far lower costs than magnet schools.”
Sen. Gayle Slossberg D-Milford, the new co-chairwoman for the education committee, said she wants to see the “facts and the data” to assess how successful the state’s investment in new education programs has been.
Since 2009, the state has been under a moratorium on the establishment of new magnet schools. That moratorium has excluded the Hartford region, where the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation case has led to the development of many new magnet schools.
“Right now, I don’t see any reason why we should not seek to extend that moratorium,” Fleischmann said. “Magnet school operating costs have been going up many, many times faster than our support for districts through the [Education Cost Sharing] formula.”
Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said his organization would like to see legislators require the Department of Education to take a comprehensive look at the entire magnet school structure and its financial sustainability.
As it is now, Cirasuolo said, school districts have no control over what they pay in tuition for a child who wants to attend a magnet school.
“The financial burden for school tuition for some districts in the state is onerous,” a statement from CAPSS said. For some districts, Cirasuolo said, this means there is significantly less funding available for students who remain in ordinary schools.
The legislators say they also are concerned about the amount of testing going on in state schools, particularly for high school juniors who often take SATs, ACTs, Advanced Placement tests and the state’s new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test. In September, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sent a letter asking U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to consider ways to relieve the burden of testing on 11th-graders.
“One of the my big issues is the overtesting of our children,” Slossberg said. “I think we need to ask the question: How much of this [testing] has value? What value are we getting and at what cost?”
Slossberg said she is also concerned about improving programs for the state’s children who are learning to speak English.
Secondary School Reform
Sometimes the process of carrying out a law takes so long that it becomes outdated by the time it goes into effect. Cirasuolo said that’s the case with a 2010 state statute that put into place a number of reforms for secondary schools. Because those reforms required funding, the date for implementation was moved to September 2015.
But Cirasuolo said that the funding has never materialized and that the recommended reforms are now outdated. Since then, he said, educators have come to see that “personalized learning” based on a student’s mastery of a subject is preferable to requirements that are based on how much time a student spends earning credits in a class.
Because of the lack of funding and the shift in educational focus, CAPSS is recommending that secondary school reform be postponed so that a new proposal can be designed.
Cirasuolo’s organization also is proposing that the legislature establish an innovation fund to support the development of personalized learning models.
UConn Foundation Transparency
Proposals to make the UConn Foundation, the university’s private non-profit fundraising arm, more transparent have come up in the past. Last year’s proposal died in committee. But some say this year a bill already filed by Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, could have legs.
The foundation has maintained that it should not be subject to the same disclosure requirements as regular government agencies because it is a private non-profit. But demands for greater transparency grew louder last spring after the foundation paid $251,250 to Hillary Clinton for a lecture, and louder still earlier this month when UConn President Susan Herbst got a 20 percent increase in her compensation. Under the arrangement, the foundation has contributed $300,000 to her compensation.
Lavielle, who filed the bill before Herbst’s pay raise was approved, said she has wanted to know more about what the foundation is doing with the money it gets.
“When the money goes into the foundation, it goes into a black hole,” Lavielle said. “We don’t really know how it’s being used. … We need to be careful it’s not getting thrown and thrown and thrown and then people have to pay more to go there.”
Rep. Roberta B. Willis, co-chairwoman of the legislative higher education committee, said she’s not interested in finding out the names of the donors, but is interested in seeing more transparency on how the money is spent.
Board of Regents For Higher Education
Lavielle also proposed a bill to dissolve the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which Malloy established in 2011 when he merged the administration for the state’s regional university system with the community college system.
Malloy’s object at the time was to save administrative money that might be reinvested in the classroom.
Lavielle said that she doesn’t expect the bill to go anywhere, but that she wants to have a hearing and a full public review of the effectiveness of the Board of Regents
She said that since its establishment, the board has been involved in many debacles from the resignation two years ago of its president, Robert E. Kennedy, after the improper approval of raises to the recent criticisms raised about the board’s reform plans and the abrupt departure of the regents provost.
“The activities of the Board of Regents have been embarrassing since it was formed,” she said..
Reciprocity of Teachers, Administrators
Connecticut makes it difficult for teachers and administrators from out of state to get hired in state.
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of Connecticut Council for Education Reform, hopes to see legislation passed to enable a teacher certified in Massachusetts or New York to get a job in Connecticut without having to retake the state’s tests or get another state certificate.
Other Northeastern states have such reciprocity agreements, Villar said, and he thinks it would be helpful, particularly for increasing the number of teachers in areas such as bilingual education.
In addition, Villar said, CCER would like to see legislation that provides incentives — perhaps loan forgiveness arrangements — to attract and retain good teachers in struggling school districts.
Among other issues expected to come during the session are proposals relating to the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission’s impending final report. The 16-member panel was created by Malloy to review current policy and make specific recommendations in the areas of school safety, mental health and gun violence in light of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents also hopes to see legislation passed that will reduced the burden of special-education costs for local districts.
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